October 26th, 2019.
They chime every hour, their sound easily carrying across the four Brooklyn blocks to my apartment. Even with the windows closed I hear their song. The melodies are instantly familiar, transporting me five hundred and eighty miles south to my rural hometown of Denton, North Carolina.
Rock of ages, cleft for me! I sing along in my head to the ancient hymn, one of my dad’s favorites. A funeral director whose hardscrabble upbringing spurned an ambition that transported him from a home without indoor plumbing to building a family business spanning three counties, my dad loved to belt out a tune when he returned home late in the evening after work. Fifty years in the funeral business plus a lifetime of bible belt religiosity meant he knew every word, every verse, every hymn.
My own youth, complete with Vacation Bible School every summer, Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF) every Sunday evening, along with our regular Sunday School and eleven am worship service attendance, filled my consciousness with a host of songs, instantly recognizable not only from the Catholic church down the block but from panhandlers I encounter on the street and aging buskers boarding the A train.
Will the circle, be unbroken, by and by Lord, by and by! The quartet of older black men shuffle down the subway car and I smile in recognition, offering a dollar to their proffered cup. I picture my dad offering the first stanza to my mom as she heads for her church circle meeting, an oft-repeated joke he sung out to her on her way to the weekly social gathering of women from the church.
Although she, too, knew every word, my mom never sang outside of church. Her mother, my Grandmother C, led the choir at First Baptist with a firm hand but outside its walls she merrily sang to herself throughout the day, reciting the day’s events in a singsong voice. But her talent skipped two generations, and neither my mom nor my brother or I can ably sing.
Holy, holy, holy! Lord, God, Almighty! I’m seated at my makeshift desk in the bedroom of my six hundred square foot Brooklyn apartment when I hear the melodic opening tones of Holy, Holy, Holy. Twenty years have passed since I left Denton but the song autocompletes in my head and I smile at the memory of holding a hymn book between my 6’2” dad and 5’2” mom. I’m attempting to write a report on the disproportionately high smoking rates of southern states for my science writing job but I pause to let the bells transport me.
After church we’d have lunch at one of the three restaurants in town open on Sundays. The most popular featured a fifty foot buffet of country cooking, complete with ham hocks, collards, and lima beans. My dad would always manage to fill his plate with all of the items that dis-interest me most even as an adult: an array of beans, cabbage, dried salted pork and Japanese fruit pie. He wore a suit every day of his life, which made for an easy transition from church to a two o’clock funeral. Sometimes my mom, who left her school librarian job in the nineties to get her funeral director’s license, joined my dad on the service. In the early days of her new career she wore an abbreviated necktie in the same pattern of her all-male colleagues. Unlike my older brother, who permanently joined the family business after college, I checked out after clocking in two teen-aged summers as a flower-mover and phone-answerer, preemptively leaving the funeral industry for college and graduate school and eventually, trading my eleven hundred person town for the biggest city in the country.
Continued within Issue No. 7 - Autumn 2019, launch reading at Housing Works, 126 Crosby Street - October 30th, 2019.